Cambridge Curiosity Cabinet: Footprints in Cambridge’s mud

Guy Lewy 30 January 2015

This city’s streets are not what they used to be. The hard, sterile flagstones and tarmac that we no longer notice are unloved heroes of the modern era, because what came before them was disgusting beyond our imagination.

For most of Cambridge’s existence, the town has been criss-crossed with the roads we know as mud tracks, like fungal veins through an unpleasantly smelling cheese. The job of every van and lorry we see was of course burdened onto horses, which in Cambridge were dropping around 60 tonnes of manure a day into the mud of the city’s rutted and unpaved streets.

Moving these endless piles of manure had always been a problem, increasingly so exponentially with the population until 1894 and the motor car.  The Times made the bizarre prediction that “in 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure”. Victorian era Cambridge was a place where dead animals littered the road, bins were emptied out of windows, and the city’s untreated sewage dribbled freely into the Cam. It is quite certain that any modern student would be overwhelmed by the smell of the place.

Even the most mundane of today’s actions were foreign and strange in the mud of the olden days. Crossing the road meant squishing boots into inches of mud, manure and rubbish.  For a woman there was a suite of extra problems: the long-trained dresses popular from the Regency era needed an army of staff to keep them clean on the grimy streets. White dresses were an unattainable status symbol for regular women who had no servants to hold trains and launder out inevitable specks. Roads were so filthy that street children took up the job of “crossing sweeper”: squishing a thin channel through the mud with a brush to save the hems and boots of fashionable ladies, in return for a small informal fee. Crossing sweepers later became archetypal figures of unschooled vagabond children of the street. Incredibly, some of the numerous residents of Victorian cities who the social journalist Henry Mayhew found were so removed from society that they had never heard of God.

The mud and grime did leave one beautiful chain of largely unnoticed scars on Cambridge. Not just the organic forms and curves of our streets, but the elegantly sculptured boot scrapers we walk past a hundred times a day.  If you have never noticed these mysterious objects set at floor-height by Victorian buildings, take a look down. Though the cast iron relics are redundant but intriguing flourishes in our age of tarmac, in the days they were born for they were vital, coated in dung and mud by weary walkers ending their trudge and entering the building. Now they are splendid reminders of a squalid past, watching with nostalgia the mudless boots swing by.